Ten Songs That Legendary Radio Station CKLW Helped Break

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Bryan Adams photographed in 1983.

The excellent Juno Awards tribute to Rosalie Trombley understandably focused on big names and the better-known songs broken under her watch as Music Director at CKLW: Bob Seger, Randy Bachman, Gordon Lightfoot. That’s understandable. But it necessarily missed what I loved about CKLW, the Canadian-licensed AM top 40 that ruled Detroit radio (and sometimes Cleveland as well).

Even in an era when regional hits were common, CKLW’s playlist was dotted by songs that did much better in Detroit and the smaller markets in the Motor City’s orbit. Detroit was often the gateway to national success for an R&B crossover or a Canadian pop hit, but it was the records that didn’t go much further that drew me in. Any given week’s playlist from the station, throughout its history as a top 40 (from 1967-1983), has at least two or three great R&B hits that even R&B Oldies stations don’t play now.

I discovered CKLW in late 1973 or early 1974, at a time when the station was rich in defining records, ranging from BTO’s "Let It Ride" to James Brown’s "The Payback" to Terry Jacks’ "Seasons in the Sun,"  which I knew months before anybody else at my junior high. "Seasons" is easily derided now -- by others -- but to an 11-year-old listening at night, it was the creepiest record possible, even once I knew what was coming.

Not every record that made CKLW great was the station’s invention. Trombley didn’t single-handedly break "The Payback"; "CK" just got to it before any pop station in my corner of the Northeast. And not every song CKLW tried to break was as hip. Trombley helped rescue "Beth" by Kiss from B-side obscurity, but she also did the same for "Daddy, Don’t You Walk So Fast" by Wayne Newton. CKLW famously had to meet 30 percent Canadian content quotas at the time, and a lot of what Canada produced was soft pop.

One great microcosm of CKLW comes from summer 1981. There in the middle of its playlist, consecutively between No. 16 and No. 18, are these three songs:

Such was top 40 in that era, of course. But all three songs, even the Greg Kihn title that was the national hit of the three, did better in Detroit and represented the market’s musical DNA.

So here are ten songs you may not know that CKLW curated for me (and a few million other listeners):

Funkadelic, "I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing" (1970)  – "(I Wanna) Testify" took George Clinton and the Parliaments to No. 2 for the year on CKLW in 1967. Then, for many people, Parliament/Funkadelic didn’t emerge from the mothership again until "Tear The Roof Off The Sucker (Give Up The Funk)," nearly a decade later. In Detroit, they kept going to No. 1 on both CKLW and rival WKNR (Keener 13) with Funkadelic’s acid-washed "I’ll Bet You" in 1969 and this the following year.

Bob Seger, "Lucifer" (1970)  – Between "East Side Story" and "Katmandu," Seger also had an album’s worth of local Detroit hits over the decade leading up to "Night Moves." Only one of them, "Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man" was a national hit, but many are gems. By the time Seger recorded "Rosalie," his grudgingly affectionate tribute to Trombley, he came by his frustrations about the record business honestly. "Lucifer" galloped to No. 11 on CKLW, then back down the charts just as quickly. Today, it’s not even in print domestically. Neither, for that matter, is Seger’s version of "Rosalie."

Joe Cocker, "Woman To Woman" (1972)  – I also associate Cocker’s "High Time We Went," a modest national hit, with CKLW. This was No. 2 on CKLW in late 1972. It was the perfect fusion for a funk/rock city. And most readers will recognize the track.

Bettye Lavette, "Heart Of Gold" (1972)  – Before the veteran R&B artist discovered Americana, she dabbled in Canadiana with this Neil Young cover. Canadian acts often covered British or even American hits, hoping to nab the hit version at home before the original was released, and take advantage of "Cancon" laws that required a station to play 30-35 percent Canadian music. But American acts sometimes ended up on CKLW by covering Canadian songs.  

Detroit Emeralds, "You Want It, You Got It" (1972) – This vocal group had a handful of great R&B singles between 1971-74 on local Westbound Records. What made this a signature record was that you could still hear it on the station a decade later; it stayed in the gold library almost until CKLW changed format in 1983.

Undisputed Truth, "You + Me = Love" (1976) – They were best known for "Smiling Faces Sometimes." They recorded "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" before the classic Temptations single. And "You + Me = Love" would be memorable for the way it broke, running its course on the R&B chart without crossing over at all, then starting to sell again as one of the first 12-inch singles. Warning: whether you should play this song at your desk depends on whether you could play Donna Summer’s "Love to Love You Baby" at work. Suffice it to say that the end of the bridge is one of the most ecstatic moments in pop music.

Donna Summer, "There Will Always Be A You" (1979) Heroic music director stories often involve the smash hit rescued from intended obscurity on the "B-side" of a single. I have no idea why CKLW decided not to play "Dim All The Lights" by Donna Summer. "Dim" wasn’t as immediate as "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls" before it, but was more than vindicated as a real hit eventually. But in Detroit, it was the B-side that went to No. 2 on CKLW and was a real enough hit to show up on several other pop and AC stations. Some readers may find this risible from the opening notes, but by the end of fall ’79, any sense of "what the hell is this" had long vanished into the etherealness of this song. Think of it as Kate Bush (whose U.K. breakthrough hits were taking place around the time this would have been recorded) recording a prom anthem.

Bryan Adams, "Hiding from Love" (1980) In the four years before "Straight From the Heart" finally broke him in America, Adams was a regular presence on CKLW, with his own songs, and as the author of hits for others, including the original version of "Straight From the Heart" by Ian Lloyd. At the University of Michigan, I could tell which of my friends had only an AM radio in their car by whether they knew this Cars soundalike.

Burton Cummings, "Fine State of Affairs" (1980) The story of how Trombley helped break Elton John’s "Bennie and the Jets" from R&B airplay and sales is perhaps the most-told about her, but I liked this one too: how CKLW, even with its influence waning, made this song sell in Detroit’s R&B stores. (By that time, WGPR’s Electrifyin’ Mojo was sending a lot of new wave on to Detroit’s R&B airwaves, but even if Mojo was involved, he had to hear it somewhere.) This was Cummings’ version of a Cars record. Inexplicably, CBS refused to put it out in America, often the case with some of its biggest Canadian hits during the ‘80s.

Kraftwerk, "Pocket Calculator" (1981) An absolutely bizarre thing to hear on any Top 40 station at a time that represented a wimpy format low point elsewhere. I’m guessing this one began with Mojo – it’s typical of what he played – but part of what made CKLW great is that Detroit’s other format leaders were also finding their own hits. So the rock, AC and R&B crossovers weren’t what they would have been in other markets either. And although Kraftwerk’s "Numbers" gets all the credit, both songs helped seed Detroit’s place in techno history. 

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